When the Fairytale Fades: How to Deal

We often see in movies those fairytale romances and relationship stories that simply stop at the happy ending, without showing what actually happens next. We don’t hear about Cinderella’s struggle to balance her new event planning business and Prince Charming and the kid’s demand for attention. And so these romantic movies tend to focus on the spark and fun side of a couple’s life, without showing what happens years later, as routine settles in.

The reality is that all relationships are faced with hurdles and times where it’s not all smiles and sunshine. And sometimes the hard times get harder if regular alcohol use becomes an addition to the family. What once was a glass or two in the evening with your partner slowly turns into finishing the entire bottle.  Enjoyable moments of feeling relaxed and connected with each other start to break down into arguments, increased stress, and isolation.

The consequences of problem drinking develop over time.  As a partner it often starts as a simple feeling that something isn’t right or an uneasiness when you know that alcohol is going to be consumed.  You may notice that your loved one is drinking more and more on a regular basis. They may say that they will cut down but that commitment is always broken.  Despite your complaints that it affects your relationship and affects the family, your partner continues to drink. Maybe you come to expect that when there is alcohol there will be mood swings.  You find yourself walking on eggshells so you don’t disrupt the peace. Instead of planning healthy activities your loved one focuses on where to find the next drink. That next drink happens even if it results in missing work or neglecting other responsibilities.  As drinking escalates all family members feel resentment and frustration.Alcohol use is widely accepted in society: we use it to celebrate, to reward ourselves, and to drown our sorrows.  Its prevalence and status within our society has made it difficult for people to identify or know when alcohol use has shifted from something fun to being a problem. There’s no doubt that dealing with a rocky relationship is hard, and dealing with health issues adds a whole new level of difficulty. So what if you’re concerned about your loved one’s health, habits and relationships? If what you just read sounds like someone you know, you likely have many questions running through your head.  Where do I start? How do I help? How do I talk to them about it? Will they want to change and what if they don’t?  What happens next depends on your relationship with the drinker and what the drinker understands to be the problem. This will be unique to each person and situation, but here some tips to get you started:

  • Don’t be ashamed.  This is nobody’s fault.  Addictive behaviour is something all humans experience in one form or another. 
  • Don’t nag or lecture.  You are not going to be saying anything that the drinker hasn’t thought of already (probably hundreds of times over) and it will just push the behaviour underground or create resistance.
  • Don’t expect miraculous change.  If you have ever made changes in your own life you know that it takes readiness and time.  Be patient and kind.
  • Don’t protect them from natural consequences.  There is no incentive to change if a person is protected from the consequences of their actions.  Assert yourself in small ways. Don’t avoid vacuuming at 9am because he is hungover. Don’t call in a sick day at work for her.
  • Do prioritize your own self-care and needs.  Go to the gym, see friends, make space for yourself.
  • Do create your own support system.  Join a group or share with friends.  Most people are surprised to find that this issue is more common than they think.
  • Be positive and supportive.  Acknowledge what is going right.  Celebrate small changes. It is the gold star that motivates us not the wagging finger.

Sometimes you may be the first to notice that someone you care about has a drinking problem. Click here to learn what are some other  common signs to watch out for. 

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[Editor’s Note: The above does not apply to every person. Each person and relationship is unique. Remember to always take care of yourself, if you are experiencing a medical emergency, or feel you are in a situation that is unsafe or unhealthy, please seek professional assistance.]

Lindsay Killam is the Clinical Program Director at Alavida. She’s a registered social worker with a Master’s in Social Work from the University of British Columbia. She has specialized in the treatment of mental health and substance use disorders for over a decade. She has also been a leader in program development in non-profit and public health services.